John Haywood, pioneer jurist and historian of early Tennessee history, was born in Halifax County, North Carolina in 1762, the son of prosperous tobacco producer Egbert Haywood. Despite limited educational opportunities on the colonial frontier, Haywood taught himself law and in later life became widely read. Admitted to the bar in 1786, he quickly gained a reputation as one of the best legal minds in the state. After serving as clerk of the North Carolina State Senate and then the lower house, he became the state’s solicitor general in 1790 and attorney general the next year. In 1794 he was appointed to the North Carolina Supreme Court but resigned in 1800 to defend a longtime friend, North Carolina Secretary of State James Glasgow, who, along with several other prominent citizens, had been charged with land warrant fraud. This scandal proved so unpopular that Haywood’s own reputation was injured in defending Glasgow. Following the trial in which Glasgow was convicted, Haywood moved to Raleigh and returned to private law practice, in addition to beginning a career as an important legal scholar.
His North Carolina Reports (1806) and A Manual of the Laws of North Carolina (1808) were the first important compilations of the state’s statutes. He produced equally important legal texts for Tennessee, including A Revisal of All the Public Acts of the State of North Carolina and of the State of Tennessee (1809), Duty and Authority of Justices of the Peace (1810), and The Statute Laws of the State of Tennessee (1831), completed after his death by Robert L. Cobbs.
Haywood owned land in Tennessee, and, at the encouragement of his friend John Overton, he moved his family to Davidson County. He built a home called Tusculum some eight miles south of Nashville and soon added two log offices, where he trained young men for the law in what may have been the first “law school” in the Old Southwest. As in his native state, Haywood quickly established an enviable legal reputation. In 1816 he was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals, a position he held until his death in 1826.
Though he weighed over 350 pounds in his later life, Haywood was an active and energetic man and researched and wrote on religion and history in addition to his legal work. A slender eccentric religious study titled The Christian Advocate, published in 1819, was his first non-legal work. He is best known for his histories of Tennessee, including The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee (1823), an attempt to prove that the native tribes of Tennessee were descendants of ancient Hebrews, and The Civil and Political History of the State of Tennessee (1823), a comprehensive history from prehistoric times to statehood in 1796. The Civil and Political History became an influential source for future Tennessee historians, especially J. G. M. Ramsey. Haywood’s histories made him the pioneer in Tennessee historiography. In researching his histories, Haywood examined early colonial and state records and interviewed many of the pioneers or their descendants. Though later criticized for inaccuracies, the books were groundbreaking works in preserving and interpreting the state’s history. An outgrowth of Haywood’s research was the formation of the state’s first historical society, the Tennessee Antiquarian Society, in 1820; Haywood served as president for all of its two-year existence.
Haywood and his wife, the former Martha Edwards, had ten children. Haywood died on December 22, 1826, and was buried on Christmas Eve at his home. Tennessee’s Haywood County, created in 1823, is named for him.